Iran’s supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today gave brief but unprecedented praise to a leader of the United States, welcoming President Obama's effort to cool down war rhetoric in the West surrounding Iran's nuclear program.
“This talk is good talk and shows an exit from illusion,” Ayatollah Khamenei told Iran’s Assembly of Experts, a senior clerical body, according to a translation by Agence France-Presse. “But the US president continued saying that he wants to make the Iranian people kneel through sanctions, this part of this speech shows the continuation of illusion in this issue."
Khamenei's rare and unexpected praise of Mr. Obama may be a first signal of an easing of the paranoia that has gripped the Iranian regime since a popular uprising erupted after elections in 2009. The Islamic Republic proclaimed a “victory” in parliamentary elections last week, declaring an official 64 percent turnout critical to internal security and legitimacy.
What sanctions? Top five countries buying oil from Iran.
Khamenei said that result would boost Iran’s “prestige and security,” and actual belief in such support – despite an opposition boycott and numerous irregularities – may have underpinned his words today.
A snap analysis by the Iran News Now website of Khamenei’s comments said the parliamentary elections “have left Khamenei feeling secure enough to publicly acknowledge Obama’s caution on war talk.”
Khamenei’s praise of Obama is “also a sign that he fears the possibility of an attack, otherwise, it is out of character for Khamenei,” wrote Iran News Now. “Combo of feeling secure internally but insecure externally has led to Khamenei begrudgingly giving a qualified nod to Obama.”
Obama has in recent days sought to dampen war talk from Republican presidential candidates, Congress, and Israeli leaders and their supporters at a 13,000-strong conference of the pro-Israel AIPAC lobby in Washington.
'Not a game'
“This is not a game. There is nothing casual about it,” Obama said on Tuesday, scolding Republicans for “bluster” and “big talk” about launching strikes against Iran to halt Iran’s nuclear efforts. The US president said he believed there remained a “window of opportunity where this can still be resolved diplomatically.”
Khamenei, meanwhile, has only rarely in recent years commented directly on words or gestures from the United States – which Iran has lambasted as an arch enemy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Initial American gestures in the first months of the Obama administration were cautiously noted by Khamenei, who did not rule out moving toward some kind of détente but couched his response in suspicion that the outstretched American hand was a clenched fist wrapped in velvet.
Not a day has gone by since 1979, Khamenei has often declared, when the US has not sought to undermine the Islamic regime. Chants of “Death to America” still ring out at Friday prayers across the country, and American and Israeli flags are burned and trampled upon during key revolution anniversary dates.
International talks coming
Khamenei’s words today come as both the Iranians and P5+1 group – the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany – have signaled that they will resume nuclear talks in coming weeks for the first time in a year.
The board of the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) meeting in Vienna today declared that those talks needed to be “serious” and yield “concrete results,” after two IAEA expert visits to Iran last month failed to make progress on outstanding questions about possible nuclear weapons-related work by Iran.
But the most critical recent event inside Iran was the parliamentary elections. Despite boycotts of the vote, the banning of one-third of potential candidates, and the continued house arrest of opposition leaders, the Islamic regime claimed a renewed legitimacy after the star-crossed 2009 presidential election, streets protests, and violent crackdown.
Farideh Farhi, an Iran specialist at the University of Hawaii, suggested to the Monitor this week that the regime may try to translate claims of an “epic” election victory against “enemies” into an easing of Iran’s “paranoia” in dealing with what it calls the opposition “sedition” at home, and in nuclear moves with the West.
“Let us hope they will be happy,” Ms. Farhi told the Monitor. “It will have benefits for everybody if the paranoia goes away, and they feel successful.”
Tweets from the ayatollah
Khamenei himself made that direct connection, between the election results and his words for Obama, in his comments broadcast on state-run TV.
They were highlighted on his official Twitter account, with comments on Obama intermingled with those about the election results.
In a rapid series a six tweets in English, Khamenei was first quoted saying the election was a slap against “those with illusions about future of [Islamic] system and people.”
He then referred to Obama as #POTUS – President of the United States – and wrote: “It's good to realize that war with Iran won’t work & it seems he is not delusional any more,” adding minutes later that it was a “delusion” of Obama to aim to “cripple” the Iranian people with sanctions.
“With 33 years of sanctions, and intensifying it last year, they wanted to create a separation between people & [the] Islamic regime,” the tweets continued. “But the 2 March election signified people’s vote and devotion to the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Efforts to calm the rhetoric from both Iran and the White House come at the peak of months of escalating war talk over an Iranian nuclear effort, one in which US intelligence and military officials say Iran has not yet made a decision to go for a weapon.
Iran says it only aims to peacefully produce nuclear energy, as a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In late February, Khamenei repeated Iran’s view that having nuclear weapons was a “sin” and that Iran “will never go after such weapons.”
What sanctions? Top five countries buying oil from Iran.
The rhetoric of 'existential' threats
Rhetoric and threats against Iran from the campaign trail in America, and from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, however, present Iran as racing for a nuclear weapon that will present an “existential threat” to the Jewish state.
“I will take every measure necessary to check the evil regime of the ayatollahs,” Mitt Romney wrote in the Washington Post this week, stating his willingness to use military force. “Only when they understand that at the end of that road lies not nuclear weapons but ruin will there be a real chance for a peaceful resolution.”
Candidate Rick Santorum told the AIPAC meeting: “If Iran doesn’t get rid of [its] nuclear facilities, we will tear them down ourselves.”
Follow Scott Peterson on Twitter.